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Collecting and Managing Your Personal and Family Records

This collection of resources, curated by the University Libraries' Collections of Distinction, contains information related to the preservation of personal and family archives. Learn how to identify, store, care for, and digitize the papers, books, photog
Photograph of paper land lease documents, dated 1910

When we think of our archival history, we often think first of paper records and documents. You may have family materials handed down through generations - like deeds, birth certificates, and savings bonds - or you may have paper momentos collected from your own lifetime, like letters and diaries, newspaper clippings, event programs, or ticket stubs. 

The resources below may help you learn to preserve your personal and family papers and records to ensure they last into the future. 

Preservation and care

The two basic considerations in preserving paper records and documents are proper storage and environmental control. These tips from the Northeast Document Conservation Center are a good place to start:  

Environmental Control

Stable temperature and humidity
  • Choose a storage location with the most stable temperature and humidity. A good target is 70 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity below 55%.
  • Avoid storing records in spaces prone to moisture and temperature fluctuations, like attics, basements, and outer walls. 
Avoid light and water damage
  • Use blinds and curtains, and store materials in opaque containers to reduce fading from light exposure.
  • Avoid storing items near or below heat sources and water sources, and store materials at least four inches off the floor to reduce damage from floods. 
Prevent pests
  • Dust and vacuum regularly.

Storage

Enclosures (folders, sleeves, envelopes, and boxes) should provide structural support, prevent papers from slumping or curling, and protect contents from tears or damage from pollutants. 

Boxes and containers
  • The most preferable storage boxes are acid-freebuffered cardboard boxes, though other clean, sturdy cardboard boxes should be fine in good storage conditions.
  • Plastic storage containers are generally not recommended, because they could damage records by trapping humidity inside. If plastic containers are preferred, use polypropylene only. Avoid sealing archival storage boxes with tape or a sealed plastic lid.
  • Folders should be fine stored in filing cabinets, if environment conditions are stable and cabinets are neatly packed. Store folders vertically, packed tight enough to avoid bending or sagging. 
Paper enclosures
  • When possible, store documents in folders rather than envelopes, to avoid damage when removing and replacing items.
  • Look for acid-freelignin-freebuffered folders and envelopes that help protect papers from brittleness or discoloration.
  • Keep in mind: stable climate and neatly organized storage are more important than expensive archival folders and envelopes. 
Plastic enclosures
  • Preservation-grade polyester, polyethylene or polypropylene document sleeves are appropriate for protecting archival materials. 
  • Do not use plastic enclosures made from PCV (polyvinyl chloride), which degrades quickly and can cause significant damage over time.
  • Most paper documents are secure in well-organized paper folders or envelopes. Plastic sleeves are only necessary when items are particularly brittle or damaged. 
Storing folders
  • The size and shape of envelopes, folders, and boxes should match the objects they hold.
  • Avoid edge damage caused when papers stick out from the sides of folders.
  • Store folders packed vertically, rather than stacked.
  • Avoid extra space in boxes where documents can sag, bend, or shift about. Pack folders tight enough to avoid bending or shifting, but loose enough that they can be removed or replaced easily, without force. 
This content adapted from, "Caring for Private and Family Collections," Northeast Document Conservation Center.

As always, one of the most imporant steps to insuring your personal and family history lasts through the ages is to identifydate, and clearly label material as you create and use it. 

See the resources below for more specific advice on topics like cleaning and repairing paper materials and recovering materials from fire or water damage. Remember that many procedures you can take to clean or repair materials - especially when using tapes, glues, or chemicals - cannot be undone. Follow informed guidance carefully to avoid damaging materials. When in doubt, consult with a professional conservator. 

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Image credit: Emma Fairhust papers, University of Colorado Boulder Libraries' Archives